Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween with a Heart on 'The Goldbergs' and 'Trophy Wife'...

I don't love Halloween, but I do love Halloween episodes of television shows. I consider Halloween the official start of the holiday season, even though there is a big gap between it and Black Friday (yes, the next big holiday I observe is not the one where we eat turkey because long ago our ancestors gentrified this country by force but instead the one where we express Extreme Capitalism. I have very special tastes and traditions...) There are limits to my love of Halloween programming, though. Unlike Christmas, which is a theme I will watch on any show, even one I don't like at all and never tune into during the rest of the regular year, with Halloween, I only want to watch the ones that feature kids getting into the spirit (or more commonly, coming of age out of looking for treats, more into the tricks of the evening). I mean, I love candy more than I should admit, but at a certain point your Halloween celebration turns away from gathering the heaviest bag and then sitting at a kitchen table to trade with your friends and becomes much more about shorter, barer costumes, getting drunk, and probably hooking up with someone you can only remember by costume name the next morning. To me, there's just something kind of sad about watching that unfold, even in fiction. Thankfully, the fine folks at ABC agree with me and delivered two insanely strong (and funny) Halloween episodes of freshmen comedies The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife.

Halloween is a time for both timelessly classic costumes like ghosts and witches, as well as hot topics and pop culture items of the particular time. Set in 1980-something as Patton Oswalt reminds us every week, The Goldbergs brought me back to my childhood not only with the most covet-worthy Ghostbusters costume that Adam (Sean Giambrone) didn't even want to wear for the majority of the episode-- and how dare he!-- or Beverly's (Wendy McLendon-Covey) perhaps unintentional Freddy Krueger sweater-- but also with the details of the random extras who came to trick or treat at the Goldberg house. Seeing kids in those cheap plastic masks with even cheaper matching painted-on plastic aprons brought back hilarious (but probably painful at the time) memories. Some kids just aren't crafty enough to build their own Rubik's Cube or find a way to be Slutty Jane Goodall (which, for the record, was tamer than what most city girls where to public school today, but I could see how parents in the '80s could be outraged by it), so the hope is that their parents would be. But some parents aren't either, or are just too lazy to car about Halloween, so they find the simplest thing possible, seemingly as an impulse purchase by the register, and dress their kids in it. And you know what? It doesn't even matter; when you're that young you don't get teased for having a crappy costume; and you're all in it for the candy anyway. The mask gets you the candy, so all is right with the world.

Trophy Wife actually dealt with the last-minute costume notion when Kate (Malin Akerman) had to save the day and run to a costume store ON Halloween because Bert (Albert Tsai) wanted to be Iron Man but his mother didn't know who that was. First of all, I just have to point out that as comedies go on, all characters tend to have their IQs drop just for the sake of making the audience laugh, but it is refreshing on this show to see that Kate herself is not the typical ditzy, dumb, airhead. She's actually informed about things in the world-- not just pop culture-- so even when she makes mistakes in other areas, she seems like a woman who could still survive well in the world, even if she wasn't married to a well-off guy. Jackie (Michaela Watkins) is dippy enough to make you wonder how she is getting by post-divorce. She ends up on freeways without realizing how she did it; she doesn't know who Robert Downey Jr. is (for shame!); and she doesn't watch the real news either. She's quickly becoming the fourth child in Kate's step-mother adventures. But anyway, that was a tangent irrelevant to Halloween. It was a little unrealistic that Kate would manage to find such a kick-ass Iron Man costume ON Halloween, but watching her work her way through the line at the costume store was enjoyable in itself, and her genius strategy for trick-or-treating was genius.

Interestingly enough, both shows, despite being set decades apart and with different core themes on a normal weekly basis, did manage to deliver one similar storyline: the kid who eggs his own house. They each had their own individual take on the how and why of the event occurring, and both with separate results. On The Goldbergs it was much more about Adam trying to grow up and fit in with a cooler crowd-- the kind who uses Halloween for mischief and decided to get back at a house that was giving out crappy treats that just happened to be Adam's (sidebar: watching Murray make such a rookie mistake with the "Take One" candy bowl on the porch idea was also a nice callback to my childhood-- and probably everyone's). On Trophy Wife, it was a manipulation of a kid woozy from painkillers after having dental surgery by a kid who had egged the house last year.

Any time Halloween is done on a television shows, the costumes the characters wear are always enviable-- actual professional costume designers make them, after all. Again, I have to call out The Goldbergs' Ghostbusters outfits, but on Trophy Wife Jackie's Queen Elizabeth frock looked like a dead-ringer for Bette Midler in Hocus Pocus, too, and that just endeared me even more; Kate was a centaur-- something Jackie just happened to have lying around her house from a previous year; and Warren (Ryan Lee) hilariously went as Ellen Degeneres in what is easily the most GIF-able moment from the whole night of TV (I am working on getting that represented here).

But what makes these two shows stand out in a whole slew of holiday programming is the fact that they didn't use Halloween as a stunt or an excuse to do some weird, wacky, one-night-only crazy detour from the stories and tone they deliver week after week. Instead they used the holiday as a colorful backdrop to get to the heart of these characters and these families and their individual, particular stories and dilemmas. The Goldbergs is a coming of age comedy for a little kid who observes life through a video camera but here he was, actually getting out there, having an adventure, learning things about himself (meanwhile his mother was still struggling to let go of her babies growing up and actually showed up at a high school party to "talk up" how "delicious" her older son was to a girl he liked). Trophy Wife is a blended family comedy of adjustments for the new, young step-mom but here was a chance for her to shine while showing that the seemingly most together one in the family, her husband (Bradley Whitford), actually has his own nutty side. It went a long way to show how these people ended up with each other in the first place. 

Halloween is often a night for people to take a break from their regular lives and just have some fun for a while. Many shows, therefore, would just deliver "one-off," stand-alone, dare I say otherwise irrelevant episodes. But on The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife, Halloween was a tool to highlight the lives and moving the characters along on their respective paths. Both the holiday and the shows as a whole were so much better served that way!

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